Autism and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are widely misunderstood and often compared to one another because some of their symptoms overlap, according to experts. A neurologist and a psychiatrist in Dubai sat down with Al Arabiya English to debunk some of the myths and misconceptions associated with the disorders and raise awareness on the matter.
ADHD is a mental health disorder that includes a combination of persistent problems, some of which include hyperactivity, impulsive behavior, and difficulty paying attention.
Autism is a spectrum disorder which refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with speech, nonverbal communication, social skills and repetitive behavior.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control, autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. Some people with autism have a known difference, such as a genetic condition. Other causes remain unknown, but scientists believe there are multiple causes of the disorder that act together to change the most common ways people develop.
“If you look at the prevalence of autism, say 30 years ago, it was one in 1000, now it is one in 58,” Dr. Arif Khan, Dubai-based neurologist and co-founder of the Neuropedia clinic, said in reference to recent data collected in the US. “If you have a pool of, say 3,000 children, you would have at least 50 kids who would probably have autism so it is becoming pretty common.”
According to Dr. Shaju George, psychiatrist at Medeor Hospital in Dubai, “Autism is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges.”
Autism signs, symptoms for parents to watch
Some of the most common and undeniable signs and symptoms of autism that parents can look out for in their children often include social communication deficits such as decreased sharing of interest with others, difficulty appreciating their own and others’ emotions, aversion to maintaining eye contact, lack of proficiency in their use of non-verbal gestures, stilted or scripted speech, interpreting abstract ideas in a literal manner, and difficulty in making friends or keeping them, George said.
He added that those on the spectrum could also exhibit restricted interests or repetitive behaviors such as inflexibility or extreme difficulty in coping with change, being overly focused on niche subjects to the exclusion of others, expecting others to be equally interested in those subjects, sensor hypersensitivity (such as aversion to loud noises), stereotypical movements (e.g. hand flapping, rocking or spinning), and arranging things (often toys) in a very particular manner.
“People are born with these disorders. They are genetic, polygenic in more specific,” George said.
Khan said doctors are now more of aware of autism and can intervene at an early stage.
“We are now picking autism up earlier [because] we are more aware of it, but not we as neurologists but also psychiatrists, general practitioners, pediatricians, and parents who bring a child to a clinician’s assessment very early and because we are picking them up, we are intervening early and supporting them early,” he said.
Milder cases of autism and ADHD can make it more difficult for parents to identify such disorders. Children with autism might be considered introverted or socially awkward by many people, which causes them to go unidentified.
Khan told Al Arabiya English that he knows some people who found out they had ADHD later in their adult life but were never diagnosed.
“I have a number of friends who have ADHD but were never diagnosed as a child but even today they struggle in society, and they tell me: ‘oh I hope this was looked at earlier and I could have started treatment early.’ So yes, it makes a difference.”
He added, “I can’t blame some parents because it could be the first time they come across this and because me, as a neurologist, I see this often so I know what signs to look out for.”
Khan said that one of the most undeniable signs of autism in a child would be that if they were unable to say a word, point at objects or communicate (verbally or non-verbally) at 18 months old.
“Things like not responding to their name, having odd mannerisms, getting very excited when listening to music, not socializing with other children, isolating themselves… all of these are features,” he said, adding that when separated, these signs often do not mean anything but when they are displayed collectively, it can point to autism spectrum disorder.
ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood, according to the CDC. It is usually first diagnosed during childhood and often lasts into adulthood. It is normal for children grappling with ADHD to have trouble focusing and behaving, causing difficulties at school, at home and with friends.
There have been many stereotypes attached to autism. This has unfortunately caused many to believe that people with autism spectrum disorder are impaired. This is still an area where more awareness needs to be raised. Khan told Al Arabiya English that he has taken to Instagram to help parents identify autism or ADHD in their children early.
“I am trying to put as much information as there is to benefit some of you who might need it at the right time,” he said.
“There is definitely awareness on both ADHD & Autism in the UAE and GCC, but knowledge spreading has no limit. The more the merrier,” George said, urging the need for more awareness.
Most common autism myths and misconceptions
According to Khan, one of the biggest misconceptions of autism is that people grappling with the disorder are “mentally retarded,” adding that this belief needs to be completely eradicated.
“Children with autism are not mentally retarded, actually some of them have super average intelligence and yes, there are some with a low IQ, they can be identified and helped, but many kids on the spectrum have a super average IQ,” he said.
“I know some adult individuals with autism who are pilots, or can memorize a map of an entire city within an hour so this kind of memory and intelligence is there and sometimes some of these exceptional skills which not every child with autism has but many of them do,” added Khan.
From a psychiatrist’s point of view, George said that while ADHD will not be commonly confused with Autism, many could confuse autism with hyperactivity, a characteristic of ADHD.
“A child with autism can have ADHD symptoms associated with it. But children with ADHD are unlikely to have autism symptoms associated with it. So there are some features like obsessive compulsive disorders or obsession for example or, those can happen in both autism and ADHD children but overall just to make sure the audience is not confused, these two are completely different conditions and have completely different approach from medical team.”
George said poor parenting has no role to play in ADHD diagnosis.
The doctor added that one of the most problematic beliefs of autism are that it can be cured, which has not been proven to be true.
“There is currently no documented cure for autism but they improve well on behavioral intervention,” he said.
“Children do not ‘outgrow’ autism but symptoms may lessen or change as the child develops and receives appropriate interventions,” George said.
“Individuals on the autism spectrum can and do give affection. However, due to differences in sensory processing and social understanding, the display of affection may appear different from typical people,” he said, in reference to the misconception that individuals with autism did not have the ability to show affection.
Most common ADHD myths and misconceptions
Some of the most common myths and misconceptions about ADHD are that it is not a real disorder or that is a childhood disorder which is often over diagnosed, George said.
“It is a real medical problem affecting the brain,” he said. “It can affect both children and adults.”
“ADHD is a trait… It is something that some people have and it is never curable. Even autism, for that matter, is not curable. What we are trying to do is control the symptoms thereby helping the child to perform better, learn better,” to make them much more independent as they grow up into adults.
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